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The sacred power of Remembrance

The sacred power of Remembrance

Paul Bickley on Remembrance Day, the religious language used to describe it, and current political tensions. 09/11/2023

On Wednesday morning, the Health Secretary Steve Barclay said that Armistice Day is “a very sacred day where the whole country comes together to remember those that paid the ultimate sacrifice to give us the freedom to protest, the freedom to express different views, the rest of the year”. He then repeated the government’s position, first articulated by the Prime Minister last week, that the planned Palestinian Solidarity Campaign march on Saturday, Armistice Day, would be ‘provocative’.  

I’m intrigued by the use of the word ‘sacred’. There’s a way the word can be used to mean simply ‘something very important’, even if its original meaning was related to a religious object, time or practice, which should be treated as holy. However, I think Mr Barclay really did mean sacred in the technical sense. Remembering the “ultimate sacrifice” … which “gives us freedom” – language used instinctively but resembling nothing so much as the New Testament letters of Paul. 

What is now being debated is a matter of our secular civil religion. In a country of many colours, creeds, and philosophies, there is an argument that Remembrance Day really is one of the few things that could claim to bind a citizen to the national story. Indeed, according to polling conducted by YouGov, more people have a positive opinion of Remembrance Day than (the now only optionally religious) Christmas. At the Cenotaph, everyone is to genuflect. If a public figure refuses to observe the day with appropriate respect, they are beyond the pale.  

Yet like all religions, civil or otherwise, Remembrance has its dissenters – for instance, those that won’t wear a poppy, or those that choose a white poppy instead. They wonder what these secular liturgies of Remembrance point to. They worry that the line between commemoration of sacrifice and jingoistic celebration of victory is a thin one. Is it our honoured dead that we should remember, or those who today still suffer in war? Should we not “come together” to search, pray, and hope for peace in a world where bloody conflict is a very present reality? Whether we agree with them or not, these are coherent and ethical questions which, if anything, resonate with the occasion. There may be many appropriate meanings to be drawn from that shared national moment. 

All that said, we should be wary of imbuing Remembrance with sacred power. It is liable to be manipulated. In 1981, former Labour leader Michael Foot’s alleged donkey jacket (actually an overcoat purchased from Harrods) was used by a hostile press to suggest that he was somehow un–British. It’s a trivial example (though it wasn’t seen as that at the time), but it does remind us that, as the theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues, civil religion seeks “to empower religion, not for the good of religion, but for the creation of the citizen”. Refuse to observe it, and your place in the national community will be questioned.  

On a larger scale, that is exactly what is happening as commentators (and politicians in the highest offices of the land) connect the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s march on Saturday to the Remembrance weekend. With feelings already so high, those with public influence should choose their words carefully, precisely because Remembrance is a significant moment in national life. Not everyone agrees that the protestors’ call for a ceasefire is wise or right, but the pursuit of peace and an end to innocent suffering is an ethically serious position and consistent with Remembrance commemorations. It is not provocative, and it is not un–British.  

What is “provocative” is to give the impression that the people on the march will seek to undermine the commemorations. The worst elements on the left and the right will, if anything, be drawn more than ever to the prospect of latching onto the power of what is sacred in national life. The interventions of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have not made violence, offence and contention less likely, but more. 

The Prime Minister has said he will hold the Metropolitan Police accountable for whatever occurs on Saturday. I hope Parliament will hold him accountable for the same. 


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Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

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Posted 9 November 2023

Protests, Remembrance Day


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